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RECENTLY DRIVEN

NISSAN LEAF 

Ovoid frontal treatment of the Leaf. The panel holding the Nissan logo opens to reveal the recharging port

Car tested 2012 Nissan Leaf SL
Body style Four-door hatchback
Engine 80 kilowatt (107 horsepower), electric motor
Transmission None
Base Price $39,995
Price as tested $39,995

 

The curvy shape is liked by some, but others find it too whimsical for a car that is the technology banner carrier for the Nissan brand. Rising window line limits visibility for lane changes.

History
Early electric cars found a ready market niche of women who wanted to drive, but didn't have the physical strength to crank a gasoline engine to life. The invention of electric starting by Charles Kettering in 1911 removed a significant objection to buying a gasoline-engined car, and ultimately sealed the fate for electric cars. Except for a few low-volume models like the GM EV1 in 1996 and the Toyota RAV4 Electric in 2002, electric car production was dormant for decades. Increased environmental awareness and stringent fuel consumption targets set by the U.S. government have resulted in a new crop of electric cars destined for the mass market, and may finally signal the dawn of a new electric age.

The Nissan Leaf went on sale in Canada in the fall of 2011, and is the product of a long development process. Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn is a strong proponent of electric cars and his company has devoted billions of dollars to introduce electric propulsion on Renault and Nissan vehicles. An Infiniti featuring the Leaf's powertrain should be available in the next year or so. 

Key Competitors
The Ford Focus BEV and the Mitsubishi iMiEV are the closest competitors to the Leaf. The pure electric Focus and MiEV are closer in concept to the Leaf than the hybrid Chevrolet Volt, which can travel less than half the distance of the Leaf under electric power, but has a range-extending gasoline generator allowing you to continue your trip after the battery goes flat.    

Performance
The Leaf is a technical tour-de-force, but for the driver, the technology has been simplified to the point where the Leaf drives in a decidedly normal fashion. The Leaf is awoken by pushing a dash-mounted button which causes the instruments to light up while a welcoming tune plays in the cabin. After releasing the electrically-operated parking brake, the driver uses the console-mounted joystick to select either reverse or drive. Drive needs to be selected twice in succession to put the Leaf into its battery-saving ECO mode. The transmission selector pattern, which is printed on a panel just behind joystick, is not immediately apparent, leaving some drivers hunting around for how to get the car moving. Printing the shift pattern on the joystick itself would be more straightforward.

Once underway, the Leaf gathers speed in a linear fashion in near silence, with only a faint electric whine accompanying acceleration. The Leaf is quick enough in ECO mode and feels quite strong when the transmission selector is in Drive. Typical of electric vehicles, acceleration is responsive at all speeds. 

The Leaf's electric power steering is a bit light and quite numb, but nicely geared. While it has absolutely no sporting pretensions, the Leaf handles tidily enough and compensates magnificently with a fantastically absorbent ride that smothers even major road imperfections with aplomb. Braking is secure, with a solid pedal feel; that's not easy to achieve with a regenerative braking system designed to send energy back to the battery.  

Outward vision is very good to the front, but the rising window line impedes vision for lane changes. Air conditioning performance was much appreciated during a long heat wave. The sound system has satisfying audio quality. Road and wind noise are both well suppressed but can appear louder than they are due to the near silence of the powertrain. 

The arc of 14 blue dots at the top of the main gauge cluster is a real-time reflection of how your driving style affects battery usage. A white dot in the fifth circle from the left represents very gentle driving, with more aggressive behaviour leading to more lit dots toward the right side of the arc. Moderate acceleration results in two to three lit dots, with a single lit dot possible during steady-state cruising. Coasting, or braking will light dots to the right of the fifth circle, indicating that energy is being returned to the battery.

The gauge indicating how many kilometres are remaining until the vehicle stops is erratic. The kilometres-to-depletion reading plummets at a rate much faster than the actual kilometres travelled when the car has been freshly charged. It then settles down and even gains a few kilometres along the way under certain conditions. The distance-to-discharge indicator is most accurate when driving in urban-suburban conditions, where coasting and braking return some energy to the battery. Steady-state highway operation uses up available Kilowatts displayed at a rate that exceeds the distance driven by quite a margin. The cost of fill-up is about $2, which is a fraction of what it would cost to drive the same distance in a gasoline car.

Interior
The Leaf cabin is fronted by a dashboard housing a two-level gauge package. The main gauges are housed in a semi-circular binnacle, with the digital speedometer perched on a brow above the main instruments. The gauge graphics are clear and easy to scan but should look a bit more upscale for a car in this price range and importance. Though buttons are used instead of more easily-manipulated knobs, the Leaf's climate and main audio controls are easy to use. However, setting the tone and balance controls requires cycling though several layers of the navigation system. 

The front seats are deeply padded and resiliently firm. Other than fore and aft and recline functions, the only other adjustable feature available to the driver involves the tilt of the rear of the driver's seat cushion. Space is good for front seat occupants, but the rear seat suffers both from an odd seat design and disappointing legroom for a tall car of the Leaf's size. 

Interior styling has futuristic touches, but the finish and materials are drab -- more so given the Leaf's price. The cheap, pressed headliner and flimsy-looking carpets lack the quality and feel expected in what is a pretty expensive car. The fabric upholstery is of reasonable qualilty, but its hue is so light that it will quickly look grubby, and the synthetic wool-like material covering the door armrests will soil easily. The doors have padded vinyl inserts, which is odd as neither that material nor leather are used elsewhere in the cabin. Nissan may add more appropriate cabin colour choices and more attractive finishes when production begins in North America, late in 2012.

The front and rear seats are equipped with seat heaters to warm passengers directly, to supplement heating cabin air. This helps conserve energy, as electric heating uses up a lot of battery power. The switch for the rear seat heater is oddly placed on the side of the front passenger seatback.

The Leaf's trunk is short from front to back but is very deep below the window line. The rear seatbacks can be folded down but they create a cargo deck that is much higher than that of the trunk floor. 

Living with the Leaf
While the Leaf drives remarkably normally, recharging requires some adaptation. The proper sequence is to completely shut off the car, plug the recharger into the wall socket and then connect the car-end of the charger to the charging port on the car. A blown house fuse, an inability to charge, charging with the navigation system and dashboard both lit up and a non-start condition were all adventures that befell the APA's uninitiated staffers. The Leaf's owner's manual was little help, as it proved virtually impenetrable when it came to clear, concise advice on how to charge the car. Once the charging sequence is known, the car can be recharged without drama. A 120 volt recharging pack is standard on the Leaf. A 240 volt recharging system, which needs to be hard-wired into the building housing it, starts at about $2400.

A lot has been written about the "range anxiety" experienced by those driving electric cars, and APA 's staff all felt that anxiety while testing the Leaf. The limited range and capricious "fuel" gauge mean that you won't be able to attain anything like the full range of 160 km claimed for the Leaf in real-world operation.

In Quebec, Hydro Quebec is orchestrating a network of recharging stations across the province it calls "The Electric Circuit". Electric car owners in major urban areas will be able to grab an hour or two of charge while shopping or dining at over 100 locations, concentrated in the Saint Hubert Rotisserie, RONA and Metro supermarket chains . Not all points were operational in June 2012, and the APA discovered that the charging outlet at the suburban Montreal outlet where we planned to stop was not installed yet. Worse still, if you're only staying for an hour or two, the charging rate is so slow, that the benefit is largely cancelled out by the drive to the charging station! The charging infrastructure will eventually need to be optimized for locations where an electric vehicle is likely to be parked for more than a couple of hours, and the speed of charging will have to increase significantly on future vehicles to make recharging-on-the-go a reality. 

 

Main instrument panel (the digital speedometer is located in a brow above this panel). The read-out on the right gives the distance in kilomtres until the battery is flat and the one on the left registers battery temperature. The series of circles across the top indicates real-time battery usage. The fifth circle from the left (with the white dot), represents a driving style optimized for efficiency. More aggressive driving will light more dots on the left. Coasting and braking light dots to the right, indicating energy being returned to the battery. The centre panel provides the number of hours needed to fully recharge the battery.

The silver knob at the front of the centre console is the transmission selector. The light hue of the cabin is visually uplifting but is too light to be practical in everyday usage.

 

The armrest insert in each door is covered by a synthetic wool-like material which will soil quickly.  

 

The Leaf's electric motor has been styled to resemble a gasoline engine -- including what looks like a cam cover! In addition to its lithium-ion battery pack, the Leaf also carries a conventional 12 volt battery

 

The Leaf has two recharging ports, the one on the left is for 220V, the one on the right is for 120 volts. It can take up to 21 hours to recharge the battery at 120 volts.  

 

The Leaf's trunk is quite deep. There is a bag provided for the 120 volt recharger but it will likely spend much of its time sitting in the truck, ready to be used. The Leaf has NO SPARE TIRE;  it comes with an inflation device that puts expandable foam into the tire and a pump that connects to the vehicle's power outlet to inflate the tire after the foam has sealed it.

The rear seats fold down but the loading surface is significantly higher than the trunk floor 

Reliability
Not rated. The Leaf is a brand new and car for Nissan that uses a lot of unique technology. The Leaf has a three year/60,000 km bumper to bumper warranty, five years/100,000 km on the powertrain and eight years/160,000 on the battery. Costs of routine servicing for an electric vehicle are very low, as there are no oil changes, air or fuel filters or "tune-ups" to perform. Regnerative braking means that conventional pads and rotors will last a very long time, likely wearing due to non-use instead of wearing out.  

Pricing
At a base price of $38,395, the Leaf is much more expensive than a compact gasoline-powered hatchback with a similar size and features, but it comes comprehensively equipped. After-delivery rebates of $8,321 in Ontario and $8,000 in Quebec reduce the actual cost of the Leaf considerably. Leasing terms are advantageous. The Chevrolet Volt costs nearly $6,000 more, but benefits from a range-extending gas engine that makes for a more versatile package. The new all-electric Ford Focus BEV starts at $2,804 more than the base Leaf but lacks the Leaf's standard navigation system (NAV is important for an electric vehicle, as you'll want to know the distance to the closest charging station). Equipped with navigation, the smaller Mitsubishi iMiEV is priced nearly $2,400 less than the base Leaf, but it is a much more basic vehicle with somewhat less range.   

Safety
The Leaf is equipped with dual front, seat-mounted side and side-curtain airbags. The Leaf is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, and was rated Good in the IIHS's frontal, side, rear and roof strength tests.   

Curvilinear rear styling is reminiscent of the first-generation Ford Ka. The Leaf is eligible for special "Green" license plates in Ontario.

Summary
As a modern fully-electric car that drives in a totally normal fashion, the Leaf is truly a triumph of design and technology. That said, the limitations in range and the anxiety over running out of charge before reaching home or  charging point, impose very real limitations on all current electric vehicles. Despite its excellence, the distance and charging limitations imposed by the Leaf's battery will necessitate the ownership of a second vehicle, making the Leaf a very expensive proposition with compromised real-world functionality. 

APA believes that real-world acceptance of all-electric vehicles in North America will lag behind the carmakers' projections for some years to come. With today's battery and charging technology, electric vehicles are best suited to fleets used in stop-and-go driving that are idle for long stretches of time. This could include parking meter attendants, campus and corporate security and courier or delivery services.